Agriculture is the lead sector in many developing countries, often employing a majority of the population. Agriculture also has intrinsic links to other key sectors such as water, energy, health and environment. How agricultural production copes with climate change and how farming practices respond to it are therefore critical questions in the debate around climate change and development. The term “climate smart agriculture” (CSA) describes one set of possible answers.
CSA emerged as a family of agricultural technologies that promised to deliver a “triple win” of sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and farmer incomes whilst at the same time increasing resilience to climate change impacts (adaptation) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation).
In other words CSA’s proponents, like many have before them, promise agricultural transformation but also aim to achieve this in a way that is responsive to the evolving circumstances and needs of farmers resulting from a changing climate.
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Concepts, evidence, viewpoints
As a result many CSA solutions resemble others long advocated in the sector but still insufficiently realised on the ground - such as measures to use improved seeds, control erosion, and foster tree planting. Proponents argue that CSA initiatives can offer fresh impetus to overcome barriers to farmer adoption – such as knowledge gaps or weak support institutions – while adjusting solutions to the new reality of climate change.
CSA offers a methodological focus that emphasises ecosystem management, sustainable land/ water use and the utilisation of technologies appropriate to a particular context - based on a specific and detailed assessment of the pros and cons.
Advocates of CSA cite plenty of examples of local successes – projects that have doubled farm production on average despite climate change impacts, while also helping mitigate climate change and rehabilitate degraded lands. But a challenge for those advocates has been to understand how these local successes can be scaled up and reproduced - and why, if these technologies hold such promise, the neighbouring communities often fail to adopt them.
Sceptics also suggest that the CSA “triple win” is intrinsically difficult to achieve in practice due to trade-offs between the three goals of adaptation, mitigation and increased productivity. Pursuing them together can, in fact, have adverse effects - for instance if maximising mitigation gains ends up meaning deprioritisation of food production. And how these goals are balanced within a project or programme might end up being determined by power dynamics between the different stakeholders rather than any objective assessment of opportunities and costs.
CSA and food security
The causes of food insecurity are complex, but production problems are a key factor, especially among the small-scale farmers who constitute the majority of undernourished people. Increased rainfall variability and more frequent droughts and floods resulting from climate change are likely to seriously disrupt food production in many countries further reducing crop and livestock productivity.
At the same time demand for food is set to rise dramatically over the coming decades due to both population growth and changing dietary preferences, just as climate change impacts are anticipated to worsen.
Taken together, these three factors – food insecurity, climate change, growing demand – constitute a “perfect storm” of large and growing food needs coupled with constrained supply. Agriculture must find ways to meet current and future food needs despite climate change, in order to avoid the risk of still wider hunger. CSA technologies, with the right investment, might offer hope of doing this but important questions remain.
Food sovereignty advocates have raised some important questions about how CSA disrupts current aspects of the food production system such as land ownership, trade rules, and the role of agribusiness. They warn that CSA could be appropriated by powerful interests to advance their own objectives and caution against simply assuming these ‘triple win’ technologies will benefit everyone. If the promise of CSA is to be realised, such criticisms will need to be addressed.
Climate Resilient Farming Systems
Farmers and pastoralists have always had to deal with variations in the local climate so have developed longstanding coping mechanisms. These include crop diversification and mutual support arrangements. But such measures may prove inadequate to deal with the magnitude and frequency of climatic variations observed under climate change.
CSA technologies seek to address this gap by further enhancing the climate resilience of farming systems, and hence minimising the adverse effects of climate change on farm production. Some CSA technologies also harness untapped potential within farming systems and hence raise farm production. Common technologies and approaches for building climate resilience for agriculture include the use of weather data and climate modelling to inform farming decisions, weather-indexed crop insurance schemes and the use of new hybrid seed varieties designed to cope with heat stress, drought or floods. But these will only bear fruit if they are accessible, usable and affordable for farmers.
Alternative technologies that utilise agro-ecological farming practices such as soil and water conservation tend to be more readily accessible to farmers since they require few purchased inputs, and can also diversify production. But take up of these technologies has often been poor and we need to understand better why it is that they often fail to spread.
Agriculture and Climate Change Mitigation
Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, representing 20 to 25 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. But the sector also offers major opportunities for developing countries to combat climate change by reducing emissions and, more significantly, through carbon sequestration.
CSA technologies such as conservation tillage and precision fertiliser use have some potential to limit the carbon footprint of farming but the potential impact of this is dwarfed by carbon sink technologies such as agroforestry and composting which account for 90 percent of agriculture’s mitigation potential.
Advocates of CSA emphasise the potential of CSA mitigation technologies to be “pro-poor” – in other words to be beneficial to small-scale farmers in developing countries, many of whom are poor. They argue that mitigation initiatives that use appropriately targeted CSA technologies have some inherent benefits for farmers but can also directly benefit them financially via payments for delivering ecosystem services under carbon trading schemes or public sector mitigation initiatives such as NAMAs.
However, critics question whether efforts to mitigate climate change via farming can really benefit poor farming communities, noting for instance that high transaction costs make it hard for small farmers to participate in carbon projects leaving powerful agribusiness interests to reap the financial benefits. This in turn can further exacerbate challenges faced by small-scale farming communities by, for example, limiting their control over, and access to, land.